Bathing is at ancient as humanity. So it is no surprise that ritual bathing is nearly as old. In most of the world’s religions, there are ceremonies that involve water, and washing, and bathing. Cleanliness, they say, is next to godliness.
So when John headed out to Jordan, people might have been surprised at how he looked with this camel-hair shirt. They might have been surprised at his diet of locusts and honey. They might have thought him zealous and almost cranky in his religion. They would not have been surprised at all that he was washing people as a sign of repentance.
That was a ritual as old as the hills.
What shocked John was that Jesus came to him. Why should the Messiah need the washing that he offered? Why should Jesus need this act of repentance, he who is the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world? How could the sinless Son of God need this water?
Because that’s one way we understand baptism, right? It’s washing away our sins? Well, yes. When we baptize someone in our font, we do wash them clean of sin and set them free from the strong grip of the evil one.
But there’s so much more than that.
Jesus said to John that it was proper for him to be baptized “to fulfill all righteousness”. We put this into the bigger picture of how we can understand the whole life of Jesus, from his birth to his death to his ascension: every moment of his earthly life, he shows us all the aspects of a full and perfect human life. Everything that we need for our salvation, for our perfection, for our healing — the whole pattern of true humanity, is found in his life. Do you want to know what a good human life looks like? Look to Jesus and he will show you.
So I do not believe Jesus needs this baptism for his own sake, but for ours. He is Baptized, and so lays the groundwork for us to be baptized.
Baptism is above all else a commitment to follow God. It is a public declaration that from this moment forward you will be putting God at the center of your life.
We haven’t always treated baptism that way. Until fairly recently, Baptism was a fairly private affair. On a Saturday morning, family and godparents would gather in the corner of the otherwise empty church. The priest would lead everyone over to the font, tucked away in the corner of the church, forgotten, ignored, gathering dust most of the time. A few prayers, a few drops of water, and then everyone could head off for lunch.
That’s pretty much how I was baptized. I think it was a surprise to my parents when, years later, I actually started to act like the Christian that was born on that day. For Baptism is real and true, and it does change us. And finally in recent decades we have started to notice this. Baptism is much more important in the life of our church than it used to be. We now celebrate it more publically. We now test and scrutinize adult converts more than we used to. We do a better job of preparing people for this sacrament. We are recovering our deepest sense that this baptism thing really does matter.
Not everyone know this yet. Sometimes I get requests to baptize a child. I have never seen the parents before in church. When I ask, it turns out that the parents really have no attachment to any church. Sometimes the Godparents had no contact with Christianity, or were even actively dismissive of religion in general.
So I am puzzled when I ask them why they want their child baptized. And they are just as puzzled when I show them the liturgy, show them the vows and promises that they are asked to make and expected to keep, and I ask them if they really mean it.
There are reasons, of course. Our grandparents are pressuring us. Our family has always been baptized in this church. It’s just what you do, right? We want a special celebration for our newest family member.
But where is the sense that we are committing this life to a lifelong relationship with God? Where is the idea that this is a rebirth as a new creation, a new adoption into God’s family. Where is the notion that we are making a conscious choice to walk with Jesus Christ, and not with Christ’s opponents? Where is the sense that this child will be forever bound and joined to the Body of Christ which means regularly for worship, for Eucharist, for prayer, for reconciliation, for ministry?
Fortunately, I believe we are rediscovering this ancient and sacred calling of Baptism. We are rediscovering it in this current age that is unlike anything since the 4th century, for we have returned to an age when to be Christian is not something to be taken for granted. Now, as in the earliest days of our faith, we make a conscious and active choice to make our allegiance to the savior of the world, and thus to reject his enemies, the forces of evil.
We are rediscovering the true calling of our king, who offers us the path of freedom and liberty, the path of life and not death. We remember the words Jesus said to Nicodemus in chapter 3 of John’s gospel, that we born of our mothers, but also must be born again of water and the Spirit. We are rediscovering that this baptism brings us to Jesus, and Jesus brings us to the depths of the mystery of God.
When Jesus comes up out of the water, the trinity was revealed to the world. It was in fact the first time that it happened. The voice of the Father, the bird-like descending Spirit, and there, in the water, Jesus displayed to the world as he truly is – the Son of God, the beloved, the lamb, the savior, with whom God is well pleased.
It is no mistake that this is the moment in all of the Gospels when Jesus begins his work on earth. From the moment he steps out of the River, he preaches, he heals, he performs miracles and signs, he casts out demons, he gathers disciples, he prays, he battles the Adversary, he begins the hard road that takes him to the cross.
And it all begins with this bath in the river.
It was his public testimony that he was choosing to turn towards the path that God set for him. This was to fulfill all righteousness – not the shedding of his sins, for of course he was without sin, but the claiming of his true nature.
That is the heart of conversion and repentance. It is the meaning of confession and reconciliation. It is what we do every time we will in our hearts and say with our lips “God, today I will follow you.” Baptism is the first step on that life-long journey.
What was true for Jesus is true for us all who have been washed and blessed and buried and resurrected in the font. We are faced with the daily decision: we desire to be clean and fed by God’s grace, or we do not desire it. It is a daily choice, and daily re-dedication, a daily journey. At the beginning is the font. At the end is total and eternal union with God. At the beginning, water. At the end, pure light. And in between, the baptized gather at this sacred meal, which strengthens us for the journey, knits us together with our fellow travelers, and helps us gently back onto the road.